Just after 9 a.m., the phone rang in my home office in Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas.
“Bloomberg, Loren Steffy.”
“Do you have the TV on?” It was Mary Schlangenstein, my counterpart in Houston.
“No,” I said, a little befuddled.
“Turn it on. Any channel.”
The tiny black and white set flickered to life and as the image came into focus I saw a building that appeared to be sheared in a half.
“That’s the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City,” Mary said. “They’re saying it’s a gas explosion.”
“That doesn’t look like a gas explosion, does it?”
Mary had years of experience for wire services, and she’d covered lots of explosions and other disasters — far more than I had. But it seemed to me a gas explosion would come from inside the building and blow outward. This looked like someone has sliced a big chunk out of a layer cake.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said.
I don’t think I said it, but I remember one word flashing in my mind: bomb.
I took a deep breath. Twenty-five years ago, Bloomberg was still a young news organization, but we played on an international stage. I’d been a reporter for less than a decade — a business reporter. I’d spent most of my time writing about profits and mergers and new products. I’d helped cover a major plane crash early in my career, and once I’d spotted smoke off the freeway in Arlington, and landed the exclusive of how the gas station had caught fire. But I’d never handled anything like what I was about to head into.
I told Mary to wait about 10 minutes, then call our editors and tell them I was on my way to Oklahoma City. Because Bloomberg covered mostly business, and because most of the reporters in the main newsrooms rarely left their desks, I knew there would be a lengthy debate over whether I should go to the site or try to cover it by phone. I wanted to head that off and not lose precious time.
I’d recently read Foreign Correspondent by Robert St. John, a freelance writer who decided to ship off to Europe when World War II broke out. He figured he’d find somebody to write for once he got there. I figured if I got fired for going to the blast site, someone would hire me once I was there.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Mary called me on my Motorola flip phone, which was about as thick as a stack of five iPhones, and coached me through what I’d need to do. Locate the command center, she said, that’s where you’ll find out how they’re going to handle the briefings. She said it would be somewhere on the perimeter that investigators would have set up. I had a paper map of Oklahoma City on the seat beside me. I’d never been there. I figured I’d work my way around the courthouse until I found the command center.
I was barreling down Interstate 35 at 85 miles an hour, and every few minutes, bland-colored sedans with flashing lights would rocket past me. I assumed it was the FBI and other federal agents coming up from Dallas.
I asked Mary to find me a place to stay. I figured hotels would be filling up quickly. She said she’d call Bloomberg’s travel agency and get them working on it.
I pulled into downtown and parked on the street, which was eerily deserted. As I walked toward the blast site my phone rang. Mary said the only room the travel agent could find was a two-room suite at the Waterford, which I later learned was the fanciest hotel in town.
As I hung up the phone, a man in a blue windbreaker approached me and reached out his hand.
“Is that a cell phone?”
I told him it was.
“I need to borrow it.” Then I saw the yellow “FBI” on his jacket. I handed him the phone. He turned away from me as he talked and I turned around. That’s when I saw the building. It look as if someone had decided to tear it down and stopped half way through. It was shorn from the roof to the ground. Slabs of concrete dangled from floors, and metallic stubbles of rebar jutted out in all directions. White columns that had once been interior supports stood in stark, linear contrast to the chaos that surrounded them.
The FBI agent ended his call and handed my phone back, thanking me. I asked him if he could direct me to the command center, and he told me they hadn’t set one up yet. They hadn’t even established the perimeter. I later learned that they were trying to figure out how to search for survivors without causing the rest of the building to collapse.
As I walked, glass crunched under my feet. Windows were blown out for blocks in every direction. For the next few days, every step I took downtown was punctuated with the sound of grinding glass.
It was unseasonably cold that day, and it started to rain in the afternoon. I hadn’t brought a jacket, and I later realized I’d forgotten to pack underwear and socks. I stood in the rain during the first press conference, then went to the Waterford. I walked into the opulent lobby soaking wet, bedraggled, with a notebook full of details about the search for bodies.
I filed a story then found a Dillard’s in nearby shopping mall. The store was deserted, and the clerks told me the mall would probably close early. I interviewed them and wrote a story about the economic impact of the blast (business reporter, remember?)
I retired to my two-room suite and ordered room service. The next day, there was a more formal press conference, and by then authorities were sure the blast had been caused by a bomb. The body count was still rising. I filed stories for Bloomberg’s fledgling radio operation. I would spend most of my days at the bomb site, then return to the hotel, file any updates to my stories and go to bed. In the other room, I kept the TV on all the time. The Tokyo bureau would call me at the start of their day, and I’d stagger into the next room and check TV coverage for any developments. Tokyo, having given me a few minutes to wake up, would call again and I’d give a radio report. I’d go back to sleep and start the process again when the London bureau called. Then I’d wake up early and head back out to the bomb site.
In all, I believe I was there for five days, but it was a blur. I interviewed the store clerk who alerted authorities to Timothy McVeigh, who would later be convicted and executed for the bombing. I interviewed Chris Fields, the firefighter who cradled a bloody 1-year-old Baylee Almon in his arms — a now famous photo that came to symbolize the horror of that day.
One hundred sixty-eight people died that day — including Baylee Almon and 18 other children — and some 500 people were injured.
The bombing came one day after my oldest son’s birthday, and he would later write in a school essay that “my dad had to go and cover the bomb where the kids got killed.” My son turned 29 yesterday. Baylee Almon will be 1 forever.
One day, returning from the blast site I unlocked my car in the vacant lot where I’d left it. As I turned the key, a voice over my shoulder said, “you’re lucky, I was about to call the wrecker.”
I turned to the man and said, “Seriously?”
“I’m tired of all you people just thinking you can park here.”
I remembered my Texas plates. But the pettiness of the moment lingers. Amid all that death and destruction, with every footfall marked by the staccato of crunching glass, with day after day of body counts and explanations of how rescuers were risking their lives to extract bodies from the unstable rubble, one man could still muster enough — what? anger? bitterness? spite? — to begrudge a fellow human a parking space. Weren’t we all allied against the reminders of inhumanity that surrounded us?
McVeigh wanted to send a message with senseless violence — but as is always the case, the message was unheard. The violence, the horror, the inhumanity he unleashed drown it out. No one ever dug through the rubble looking for the bodies of children and then asked the bomber what he was concerned about.
McVeigh ushered in the modern era of terrorism. 9/11 would overshadow Oklahoma City, but McVeigh’s tactics, his philosophy of ignorance and hatred, his belief in violence as a solution, and his abject immorality were no different than Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS. We see its tentacles in Charlottesville and Charleston, to name just two.
I didn’t return to downtown Oklahoma City for many years. In 2015, I was in town for some interviews for a book I was writing and went by the memorial where the Murrah Building once stood. At the entrance is an archway, with 9:01 — representing the time before the blast — etched in it. One hundred sixty-eight chairs are arrayed on a grassy hill, each engraved with the names of a victim. Each is placed at about the spot in the building where they were found. Nineteen of the chairs are smaller than the rest. At the other end is another archway with 9:03 on it, which is supposed to represent the first moments of recovery.
Recovery, of course, isn’t that clear-cut. The doorway revolves. We move on, and we come back. We search for solace in remembrance. We look for reason amid chaos, for sense amongst senselessness, but we find none.